Do as I Say, Do as I Do

There was a teenage boy walking to his bus stop just a few hundred yards from his house. In the distance, he could see a boy his age pounding a folded umbrella on the head of another teenage Asian boy, who had his arms up to protect his face, begging the boy to stop.  Running as fast as he could, the first boy reached the bus stop when the umbrella broke because it was hitting the Asian boy so hard. The first boy grabbed the umbrella away from the hitter and flung it as far as he could so the hitter would leave the area to get it. He asked the Asian boy what happened, and the Asian boy replied that the hitter was boasting about the greatness of Trump and the Asian boy said that Trump was racist, misogynistic, and would be a dangerous president to have (this was the day before the election).  The hitter apparently could not come up with a coherent response so he angrily began hitting with his umbrella. The first boy asked, “why didn’t you fight back? You needed to protect yourself!” And the Asian boy replied, “My parents taught me to never hit; to not fight.”

The bus then arrived and everybody started boarding.  The bus driver told the hitter that he couldn’t bring the broken umbrella onboard  due to safety issues.  The boy cried, “But I only JUST broke it!” And the Asian boy piped up, “BECAUSE HE WAS USING IT TO HIT ME.  He was attacking me at the bus stop!”  The bus driver said nothing; did nothing; just waved the boys to their seats.  The first boy was dumbfounded that an adult in a position to right a wrong; whose job it is to make sure school children are safe, said nothing at all.

When they arrived at school, the first boy encouraged the Asian boy to report the incident to the school, since they didn’t know if there would be more aggression from the hitting boy wanting to finish the job he started.  They walked to the school safety officer (a police officer assigned to the school) and the Asian boy said, “I was just assaulted by another boy.”  And the first boy said, “I witnessed it.”  And the school proceeded to do exactly what they were trained to do.  They interviewed the boys, had the boys write out statements, identify the aggressor through photographs in the yearbook, then the Asian boy was sent to the nurse while the school contacted his parents to report the incident.  The first boy got a tardy slip and he went to his classes and finished his school day.

Later on that night, over dinner, the boy told his parents what had happened.  They had all just been discussing how many of the boy’s friends said they liked Trump, but when the boy pressed them about their views, it turned out that they were just parroting their parents and didn’t truly understand the dangerous consequences of Trump becoming president.  Then the boy said, “This happened today…” and the story about the bully at the bus stop came out.  The parents were shocked; the father wanted to contact the school, while the mother worried about how the Asian boy was doing.  The boy insisted that his Father not call the school, because he thought the Asian boy’s parents would be causing enough fuss.  The boy worried about the repercussions of his intervention.  He wondered if the bully boy’s parents owned a gun.  He planned to have another friend drive him to school the next day, just in case the school did nothing to punish the aggressor and he was waiting at the bus stop wanting revenge.  Both parents did this:  they praised the boy for being brave; for standing up and doing something; for not being afraid in the moment, of the bully, and protecting someone who could not help himself.  They told him they were glad that, even though he was strong enough and he really wanted to, he didn’t throw the bully on the ground and fight him; that defending yourself is different from using the bully’s type of violence to pound him into the ground.  And they talked about how the other kids at the bus stop stood around watching the whole thing and didn’t even say anything.  The family talked about how similar Trump’s rise to power was to Hitler’s, and how many of Trump’s followers were very similar to Hitler’s followers.  They worried about history repeating itself, and how easy it would be for people like the bus driver and the other kids at the bus stop, to look the other way while a bully was hurting someone who could not protect himself.  They talked about how quickly something can escalate into violence when people with violence in their hearts are given permission to act out their aggressions on others.  They ended their day going to bed with worry in their hearts, for the possible future that could throw their country against the world and against their fellow citizens; a frightening future that could reach into their home and put them in danger.

This didn’t happen in an inner city neighborhood; this didn’t happen to a stranger that I never met, whose story is far away and hard to care about.  This happened in a prosperous suburban neighborhood in the whitest county in the nation’s 20 most populous counties.  This happened here, just steps from my house.  The boy walking to his bus stop was my 16 year old son.  He was brave; did everything we ever taught him to do.  He stood up for what was right and defended someone who was being attacked by a bully.  But he was outnumbered at that bus stop.  There were many other kids who witnessed the bullying before my son could make it there and intervene.  Why didn’t they do something?  Parents, why aren’t you telling your children to speak up and take action?  Why aren’t you sitting them down and having this SPECIFIC conversation about standing up to bullies?  As parents, why aren’t we being good examples to our children by practicing what we preach?  Post-election, we now have a bully that will be in charge.  He will most likely advocate and encourage other bullies to attack the vulnerable in our country.  It is up to us to protect the ones who can’t fight back.  It is up to us to get involved in our government and do what we can to resist the dangerous changes. And let me add to the phrase we all know so well, “If you see something, say something, and DO something.”

Studies have shown that it only takes ONE person to speak up in a dangerous situation to move others to join them and defend what’s right.  I am speaking up right now.  Join me.

 

I Want My Fingers Back – Lunchtime Fun

Yesterday, driving home from school, my little boy, Simon, looked sad and announced that after a year of living in Jasper, he was “sick of this place.”  He started by saying that his gym teacher always put him on the weak teams because he is the tallest and strongest kid, but that it rarely tipped the scales, and he was tired of losing with her pre-arranged teams.  Then he was really quiet for a while.  I asked if something else happened today, and he said he didn’t do very well on his math test.  Then he was quiet again.  Again, I asked if that was all that was bothering him, and his face fell and he said that when he went to eat his lunch in the classroom today, other kids made fun of his beef and vegetable soup.  I guess it looked gross when it was cold, and some small-town brat, stuffing a boring turkey sandwich into his face, wouldn’t shut up about how ugly and weird it was, and who the heck brings soup to school for lunch, anyway?  Sometimes, I could really punch someone in the face – go ahead, call the cops.  Simon warmed up his soup in the microwave and replied, “yeah, it might be ugly, but it sure tastes delicious!  How’s that turkey sandwich taste…every day of every week? Is it as yummy as it tasted on the first day of school LAST YEAR?!”  I was so psyched to hear he had a good response to the little turd’s comments and that he felt confident about himself, until I could see that it was just bravado, and that he was deeply embarrassed by the whole thing.  I said, “Honey, I could make you turkey sandwiches every day too – you just tell me what you like!”  And he said, “No, Mama, I like your lunches.  They’re healthy and they taste good.  I just hate jerks. I hate it that they think everything has to be the same – that they think I have to have a stupid turkey sandwich, I have to wear the same Halloween costumes they do, and I have to play hockey to be cool.  I hate playing hockey!”  We pulled into the driveway and sat in the car for a little bit, complaining about a bunch of things.  The rule is: we can swear and complain in the car, if nobody can hear us.  It’s the only place where we can have some privacy, so sue me.  After he was done crying and I convinced him that he really would hate homeschooling with boring Mom teaching him how to do math the wrong way, I told him a story about truly disgusting lunches from my childhood.  But first I had to tell him a ghost story.

 

When I was in Kindergarten, my dad took a year’s sabbatical from the Foreign Service, in order to get his MBA from Harvard.  We bought an ancient house with a barn, in a tiny town called Groveland.  Despite being penniless, with Dad going to school and the family living off of Mom’s art gallery, my parents prided themselves on throwing the biggest, scariest Halloween parties in the neighborhood.  There were no superheroes or cute little witches at those parties.  My parents’ goal was to get you to pee in your pants from terror.  My dad would tell ghost stories in the stable of our big haunted barn (don’t argue with me – it was truly haunted), and at the end of some of the spookiest, he’d have my mom jump out of the shadows wielding a Chinese cleaver, screaming something bloodcurdling.  Parents would call my dad, days later, complaining that little Bobby or Suzy was having nightmares….and my dad would chuckle.  The only story I can remember was about a boy named Johnny, who was given some money from his mother, and instructed to go to the store and buy some sausages for dinner.  They were very poor, so there was just enough money to buy the sausages and nothing else.  Well, the little boy passed the sporting goods store and his eye was caught by the fancy new jackknife he in the window.  He had wanted that for ages, but his mother had told him they didn’t have the money for luxuries.  Well, now he had cash, so he ran in and bought the little beauty.  Playing with his new knife, Johnny then followed the tantalizing smell of fresh fudge to the candy store.  There, he spent the remainder of his money on creamy fudge, pulled taffy, and gobs of gumdrops.  Stepping out of the candy shop, alternately stuffing his face with gooey candy and picking the sticky sugary bits out of his teeth, he remembered the sausages.  What would he tell his mother?!  There was no avoiding the huge spanking he was going to get; she would be so angry with him…  As he slowly turned towards home, dragging his feet, he noticed the local funeral parlor was open, a funeral in progress.  Out of curiosity, he stepped inside, drawn to the open casket in the viewing room.  Laid to rest in the satin-lined casket was the fattest man he had ever seen.  The man’s chin had several layers, his belly rose up in an obese hill above the bottom half of the open casket, the buttons of his waistcoat straining to hold in the enormous stomach.  His arms had been crossed in a peaceful pose, his large hands clasped together, plump fingers as swollen as…sausages.   Pulling out his shiny new jackknife, little Johnny hesitated for just a moment, then quickly sawed off all of the dead man’s fingers, leaving just the thumbs attached.  He popped the fingers into the paper bag that had held his candy, stuffed the bag into his pocket, and ran all the way home.  Johnny felt queasy handing his mother the bag of “sausages” and even queasier at suppertime when his mom served up his franks and beans.  Saying he didn’t feel well, he rushed up to his room and burrowed under the covers, the rich fudge and chewy taffy gurgling and rolling over in his stomach.  He drifted into a fitful sleep, dreaming of fat knuckles and funeral parlors.  In the middle of the night, he heard some noise downstairs.  Footsteps coming up the stairs.  Big, heavy footsteps.  And he heard a deep, raspy voice whisper, “I want my fingers back.”  Johnny yelled, “MOM!!!!” and his mother rushed into the room, turned on the lights, “Are you okay, honey?”  Johnny gasped, “You didn’t hear that, Mom?  There’s someone in the house!”  She rubbed his back, tucked the covers around him, and soothed, “No honey, go back to sleep.  Everything is fine.” Little Johnny kept his eyes open for the rest of the night. The next morning dawned bright and sunny, and Johnny dragged his tired body through school, dreading bedtime in his dark room, later that night.  After dinner, he tried to procrastinate, but his mom sent him right up to bed. Lights out, a few hours later, the house fell silent.  Then, Johnny’s eyes popped open.  He’d heard it.  Heavy steps on the stairs.  Deep and raspy, “I want my fingers back.”  Johnny was too scared to scream.  He opened his mouth, but no sound came out.  The footsteps thumped up the stairs and creaked on the top landing, at the end of the hallway leading to his bedroom.  Low and raspy, the voice groaned, “I want my fingers back.”  Johnny flipped on the light to his room, and the sounds disappeared.  Shaking, he sat on the edge of his bed until the sun came up and it was time to go to school.  Bags under his eyes, he trudged to school, wondering what the next night would bring.  Later that night, after dinner, Johnny offered to clear the table, wash the dishes, ANYTHING to put off bedtime.  But his mom said, “Oh sweetie, you’ve been looking so tired lately, go on up to bed.  I’ll clean the kitchen.  Sweet dreams!”  Poor little Johnny slowly put one foot in front of the other and forced himself to get ready for bed.  Drawing the covers up under his chin, he lay in bed, dreading the fall of night.  Finally, long after his mother had gone to bed, Johnny heard the footsteps on the stairs.  “I want my fingers baaaack.”  Footsteps slow and heavy on the landing.  “I want my fingerrrrs back.”  Heavy creaking footfall down the hallway leading to his room.  I wannnt my fingerrrrs baaaack.”  Stillness outside his room, in front of his closed bedroom door.  Then the door handle began to turn, slowly, the door creaking open in the dark.  “I waaaannt myyyy finnnngggerrrs….”  BOO!  Simon’s head nearly jumped through the roof of the car.  

 

Laughing, I told Simon that he was lucky his mom packed nice lunches like soup or chef salads.  When I was little – 2nd and 3rd grade – we lived in Moscow.  It was 1976, the Cold War, we were living in Communist USSR, with very limited food choices.  The Russians could prepare beets 14 different ways, and do amazing things with potatoes, but my mother couldn’t even manage to cook a pork chop.  Her version of American food was to throw that pork chop in the oven and cook the Hell out of it.  It would come out as hard as a hockey puck, served with some steamed rice and maybe some canned corn (if we were lucky and the commissary in the American Embassy had canned veggies available that month).  We made do – with enough salt, the pork chop tasted just fine.  But for lunches, we were shit out of luck.  My sisters and I went to the Anglo American School, along with all the other children from the various foreign embassies in the city.  The school was very small, there was no cafeteria, so we ate brown bag lunches in our classrooms.  I remembered being so embarrassed, pulling out a cold, hard, pork chop.  Or a chicken leg.  Nothing else. No drink. No fruit. No utensils.  I’d envy the sweet little son of the Kenyan Ambassador.  Every single day, his cook would lovingly prepare a delicate, fresh crepe, spread with honey, and rolled up tight.  Pancake honey roll.  I would drool for it.  On my pork chop days, the little boy would tilt his head, smile and say, “trade?” and I would give him a big hug and savor his delicious lunch.  Who knows, maybe he was bored with the same-old-same-old every day, or maybe he loved pork chop hockey pucks.  Either way, I would cross my fingers for pork chops for lunch every day so I could have my pancake honey roll trade.  Unfortunately, there were days when I wouldn’t get pork chops.  There were days I was lucky to get a lunch at all.  Mom was an artist – a night owl who could stay up for days on end to finish grand paintings.  Her art came first, and feeding the children fell somewhere on her list of priorities near the bottom, under “Drink coffee. Smoke cigarettes. Brush teeth.”  She would drag herself out of bed in the morning, stand there with a cup of coffee in one hand, the other hand leaning on the kitchen counter, eyes squinting through the smoke curling up from the cigarette clenched between her thin lips.  Needless to say, we didn’t get pancakes for breakfast.  My dad bought a giant case of Nabisco Shredded Wheat and a case of Carnation milk powder when we first moved to Moscow.  There was so much of it, I don’t think we ever finished it.  Every school day morning, Mom would boil the kettle of water, crush a shredded wheat biscuit in a bowl, dump some milk powder on top, and pour the hot water over it all. That was my breakfast.  Mom would growl, “It’s 40 below outside.  You need something warm in your stomach.”   We were required to eat everything on our plates, or get it for dinner, then breakfast the next day, upon threat of a beating.  Usually, by the time I worked up the courage to choke down the hot cereal, it had cooled to a pile of inedible mush.  No amount of sugar could help it.  I gag just remembering it.  So on the BAD mornings, my mom would would open the fridge lean on the door, just staring blankly inside for lunchbox inspiration.  I’ve had the waxy ends of hard smelly cheese for lunch.  I’ve had raw onions and a hunk of salami.  But those are epicurean delights compared with Russian mystery-meat hotdogs, drenched in ketchup and wrapped in tin foil.  The hot dogs had a funky smoke flavoring, they were floppy and skinny, and looked just like real fingers. The effect, when the tin foil was opened up and the ketchup dripped out, was horrifying.  Nobody would sit with me at my desk during lunchtime, on I Want My Fingers Back lunch days.  On those mornings, my sisters and I would watch my mom wrap up our I Want My Fingers Back lunches, with sinking hearts, and we would grab slices of bread to hide in our pockets.  Later in the morning, on the school bus, I would help my little sister, who was in Kindergarten, open her metal lunchbox, and we would throw our bloody little packets of tin foil out of the school bus windows, squealing when the cars would run them over and they exploded into hotdog roadkill.  At lunchtime, we would pull the stolen bread from our pockets and chew slowly, dreaming of pork chops.  Ah, talking about the Good Old Days of my childhood always works wonders on my children when they think their lives are tough. 

So this morning, I woke up at 6am, made a pot of short-grain sushi rice sprinkled with a bit of sugar and rice vinegar, pulled out sheets of nori (dried seaweed), and a jar of furikake (seasoned flakes of nori and roasted sesame seeds).  I prepared Simon’s favorite lunch: sticky rice balls rolled in furikake, and sushi rolls with little pieces of roast chicken in the middle.  I lovingly wrapped them and placed them in a bento box with 3 baby mandarin oranges, and paired that with a thermos of his favorite juice.  Turkey Sandwich Boy can stick it where the sun don’t shine.  And if his tiny little mind can’t handle my son’s delicious lunches, I just might send Simon to school with a little tinfoil packet of I Want My Fingers Back to offer as an alternative to his turkey sandwich.  Does anybody know where I can get my hands on some Russian hotdogs in this town? 

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